A secret hand...

...how to make self-sown plants work for you

We can plan all we like in the garden, drawing up lists of plants we want to buy, ordering them or finding them at nurseries and garden centres, carefully planting them in well-prepared soil. But there’s always another secret hand at work in our gardens. While we’re busy planting in artistic drifts of odd numbers, trying to replicate nature, she’s making her own plans. These self-sown plants often turn out to grow much better than any we’ve intentionally planted, because they know exactly where they want to be, and each year they change the character of the garden.

Take one corner of our garden, where I carefully planted apricot tulips and rose pink chionodoxa, to be followed by shaggy white astrantia, a delicate blue ‘Southease’ geranium named after a village near us and a rambling Félicité Perpetue rose. The tulips never really made an appearance and I only ever spied one of the special chionodoxa. But in this same corner were bluebells galore (the thuggish hybrid variety but I think they have a certain charm), and two plants I’ve coveted for a while which arrived quite by themselves over the garden fence.

The first of these was a white foxglove. I love the magical cottage garden feel of foxgloves, but since having children I’ve never dared plant them, after once reading a novel in which one of the characters says digitalis can kill a toddler in a heartbeat. My youngest child is now six, and this specimen had tucked itself out of the way around the back of the trampoline, so I felt safe in leaving it be and enjoying its creamy white bells. The other uninvited but much welcomed plant was purple honesty. This grows merrily in my neighbour’s garden, but this was the first time in five years that it had ventured into our patch. It seemed to like our soil as it grew even taller than my neighbour’s and we ended up with two large plants. Once the flowers disappeared, we were left with those translucent coins of seed-heads which I remember from childhood. At the end of the summer, I carefully pulled the husks off, a job my six-year-old joined in with enthusiastically, leaving just the gleaming white discs behind. I can still see these from our kitchen window in December and they have given months of pleasure – all absolutely free!

In another area of the garden, I planted Salvia ‘Amistad’, given to me by the former head gardener at Charleston Farmhouse , where I used to volunteer in the garden. The salvia was killed off by the ‘Beast from the East’ in February 2018, but in the same soil there must have been a fragment of bleeding heart, because a beautiful specimen of this appeared the following Spring. The next year the forget-me-nots started. I know they come from Charleston, because the garden there is flooded with them. To begin with we had just a few, then earlier this year during the first lockdown, our garden was covered in great blue clouds of the stuff. Unfortunately, although it seems ephemeral, as an early flowerer, it can kill off later plants such as a Salvia uliginosa I had in this spot, so this year I will have to choose between keeping the self-sown forget-me-nots and saving other plants. I have a feeling the forget-me-nots will win out.

Aquilegias are another self-sown delight in the Spring, each one a different colour, although the self-sown varieties tend towards pink and purple. Comfrey I tolerate for its charming snowy white bells and the usefulness of the foliage for making a nutrient rich (if smelly) homegrown fertiliser. But there’s one self-sown thug (beside the obvious bindweed) I just won’t tolerate and that is green alkanet, which has borage like blue flowers and scratchy leaves and puts down great woody rhizomes which spread insidiously throughout the garden. When we turned the compost heap in the summer, I put the compost I thought was ready to be spread over the beds into two wheelbarrows. Both are now simply planters full of green alkanet. I’ve asked for a soil sieve for Christmas, so I can eliminate the bothersome brute, but I fear the battle is going to continue.

The trick to letting self-sown plants into your garden is to get really good at spotting which seedlings are which. In the Spring, I’ll post pictures of those I know and any I can’t in the hope of helping others and gaining useful knowledge myself.

Don’t forget, even at this time of year, when it’s cold, grey and probably wet outside, all it takes is five minutes to get half wild in the garden and restore your soul.